Stop Wasting Time in the Gym! Part II: What you should be doing instead

If you missed last week’s article on how to stop wasting time in the gym, you can read it here.

Now you’ve gotten on the bandwagon and stopped doing really inefficient exercises in the gym.  Hurray!  Really, when you can get the same amount of stuff done in fifteen minutes as you can in an hour, why in the world would you take the longer path?!

Part of the reason that we’re conditioned to believe we need about an hour of time in the gym to get results is that “leading health experts” have told us so.  And yes, if you’re doing time-wasting exercises that are little more than physical busy-work, you will need to spend more time pumping iron to get anything done.

But there’s a much faster way to blast fat and develop slim, sexy muscles…

Introducing the powerhouse of physical conditioning, High Intensity Interval Training, or HIIT!  Interval training is not to be confused with circuit training where you move from station to station performing different exercises.  HIIT is absolutely the fastest way to burn through fat, improve cardiovascular capacity and boost athletic performance.

Whereas most exercise programs – cardiovascular conditioning in particular – choose a target heart rate or heart rate zone that is about 65% of your max, take you up to that zone and keep you there for 30 minutes or more, HIIT pushes your heart rate sky high and then gives you a resting or recovery period.

Why is high intensity interval training so effective?  Well, in short, it causes you to burn more calories, flat out.  When you perform low intensity exercise, such as 30 minutes on an elliptical machine or exercise bike, you only burn calories while you’re actually exercising.  When you do HIIT, you boost your metabolism for up to 24 hours post-workout!

Additionally, interval training is highly beneficial to heart health.  During steady state cardio training, such as prolonged periods of running, your heart will become lighter and more efficient.  You’re effectively burning away heart muscle!  HIIT training causes your heart muscle – actually, all of your muscles – to become larger and stronger.  This is important for two reasons: One, a stronger heart is a healthier heart, leaving you less prone to heart disease such as myocardial infarction or atherosclerosis; and Two, larger, stronger muscles boost your metabolism and burn more fat.

The author of the book The Doctor’s Heart Cure, Dr. Al Sears, M.D., who has cured heart disease in over 15,000 patients writes, “When you exercise for more than about 10 minutes, your heart adapts by becoming more efficient. It achieves this efficiency through downsizing. Long-duration exercise makes the heart, lungs and muscles smaller so that they can go longer with less energy, but there’s a trade-off. The cardiovascular system becomes very good at handling a 60-minute jog, but it gives up the ability to provide you with big bursts of energy for short periods. Far from protecting your heart, this loss makes you more vulnerable to a heart attack.”

Basically, heart attacks don’t happen because of a lack of cardiovascular endurance.  They happen because of a sudden spike in heart rate due to increased load.

Even more interesting, steady state training doesn’t really translate into real life.  I mean, part of the reason we all go to the gym is to make ourselves more able to deal with day to day challenges, right?  But when in the real world do you keep a steady heart rate for a prolonged period of time?  Say you’re helping a friend move into her house.  You’ll likely pick up a piece of furniture, carry it up the stairs, put it down and walk back to the truck.  This is exactly like interval training…periods of intensity alternated with periods of rest.

So…how much time does this interval training take?  I already mentioned it’s less than you’re used to, but would you believe you can get full-body conditioning in less than 5 minutes?  I see you out there raising your eyebrows and shaking your head, but it’s TRUE!

Dr. Izumi Tabata completed a study at the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Tokyo, Japan, demonstrating that just 8 sets (and that’s 8 sets maximum, not minimum) of 20 seconds of intense exercise spaced with 10 seconds of rest in between is all you need to boost your fat burning ability while also improving aerobic and anaerobic capabilities.  That’s a total of 3.8 minutes!  No more excuses about not having time to exercise!

Here’s how you make this work for you:

1.  Pick an exercise, any exercise. The beauty of the tabata set is you don’t even need equipment to get it done.  Body weight squats, sprinting, jumping rope, kettlebell swings, cycling, running stairs, or virtually any other kind of exercise where you can modify intensity.  The most portable option is, of course, outdoor sprinting.

(Note for you kettlebell sport athletes out there….I find that super efficient GS style snatches, cleans, jerks, etc., are far too efficient to fully challenge you for this kind of exercise, so either go hard style – I know, but it works – or pick something non-kettlebell for tabata sets).

2.  Warm up your body and joints appropriately. Your warm up will look different depending on your age and condition, but ideally will contain full body movements and dynamic joint mobility drills to warm up your synovial fluid and tune up your proprioception.

3.  Get a great interval timer, like a GymBoss, or just stand in front of a clock with a second hand (best when doing an exercise that allows you to stay in one place, like squats).  I often use the timer feature on my iPhone.

4.  Perform 20 seconds of your chosen exercise FULL OUT. You should feel like your lungs will explode and your legs will fall off if you have to do just one more squat, take one more set, jump one more loop of that rope.  Give 100%.  Interval training, like all things in life, gives back as much as you put into it.  Put all you have into it.  Note: If you have enough breath left to complain about how hard it is, you’re not working hard enough.  I know this is tough love, but it is the truth.

5.  Rest for 10 seconds.

6.  Repeat steps 4 and 5 a total of eight times, for just under four minutes of exercise time.

7.  Cool down. You’ll most likely be shaky and out of breath.  Keep your body moving, just shuffle your feet, walk in circles or do whatever you can manage until your heart rate normalizes.

8.  Stretch, hydrate, and move on with your day!

This is a very simple way to condition your body, but it is not easy!  It’s haaaaaard.  Yes, its’ only four minutes of exercise, but those four minutes aren’t so pleasant.  But isn’t it worth it to shave 56 minutes off your workout time?